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What those letters mean

DEAR DR. GOTT: My doctor recently left the area and I have been searching my insurance company list for a new doctor. I am confused as many of the doctors listed have the letters D.O. after their  names instead of M.D. Do I want a D.O. or an M.D.? Do I want internal medicine or family medicine? Can you explain the differences? My insurance company will not enter into these discussions.

DEAR READER: You are not alone in your confusion. There are a number of specialties; some doctors act as primary care physicians (P.C.P.s), others don’t. Then there is the always confusing matter of physicians with a double specialty, such as an internist (who can double as a P.C.P.) who also specializes in gastroenterology (who cannot act as a P.C.P.).

Let’s start first with the distinction between an M.D. (medical doctor) and D.O. (doctor of osteopathy).

Both are recognized medical professionals, both must attend four years of medical school and both require internships, residencies and licensing to legally practice medicine.

Doctors of osteopathy, however, must have additional training in the musculoskeletal system and tend to focus more on the patient as a whole. Many put emphasis on preventive care, rather than treating problems as they arise. (M.D.s do this as well, but not to the same extent.)

Some D.O.s also use a technique known as osteopathic manipulative treatment during which the physician uses his or her hands to aid in the diagnosis of injury or illness, a procedure that can also be used to improve circulation and nervous system functioning (which may help the body heal itself).

Now on to what type of physician you would like. Internists are, in fact, specialists; they have additional training in the body’s internal workings.

Family medicine practitioners are general physicians who treat children and adults. This requires training in pediatrics if the physician wants to work with young children and babies. Others may only treat older children and teens, as well as adults.

General practitioners are exactly that: They treat adults and act as P.C.Ps. Then there are geriatric medicine physicians, who undergo additional training in handling problems common in those over the age of 65. These doctors can also act as P.C.P.s.

In the end, the decision is ultimately yours. In most instances, no one type of primary care physician is better than another for the average person.

My advice to you? Don’t worry so much about the type of physician or whether M.D. or D.O. is after his or her name. You will be best served by finding a physician you trust and feel comfortable with. Ask your local hospital for recommendations. Then make a “get acquainted” appointment so you can sit down and get to know him or her and determine if you are comfortable or not.

If not, thank him or her for the time and move on to the next doctor on your list.

Readers who are interested in learning more can order my Health Report “Medical Specialists” by sending a self-addressed, stamped number 10 envelope and a $2 US check or money order to Dr. Peter Gott, PO Box 433, Lakeville, CT 06039.

Be sure to mention the title when writing or print an order form from my website’s direct link, www.AskDrGottMD.com/order_form.pdf.

Peter Gott practiced medicine in Lakeville for 40 years and was a syndicated health columnist for decades.  He continues to write six days a week for his website, www.AskDrGottMD.com.

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